It appears that Obama's trip to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan was very carefully prepared and scripted. In Israel Obama went to all the right places to both show his support for peace and to flatter the Israelis. In his Jerusalem speech to students he said many things to both flatter and reassure Israelis as well as to challenge them. In the beginning of the speech he sounded like a typical American politician trolling for Jewish votes (something that he has had much practice in during his many years in Chicago and twice running for the presidency). Later during the end part of the speech in which he spoke about Israel's technological achievements and the economic miracle that Israel could provide to the Middle East he sounded much like President Shimon Peres. If you had an actor read the text of the final part of the speech with a Polish accent you would swear it was Peres.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Thursday, March 21, 2013
As I write this, I imagine that due to the time difference the official activities of the second day of Obama's first official visit to Israel are over. The first day certainly seemed to go well. Obama got across the idea that he accepts that Israel has long roots in the area and that Israeli Jews are returned natives and not simply European settlers and their co-religionists from the region as most Arabs, Muslims, and those on the European and International Left seem to believe. For the record I believe that they are both--natives who through the circumstance of history were forced to return as settlers. Netanyahu has made nice and Israelis seem to be impressed.
So what happens now? The speeches and visit could be used for two different purposes. First, to smooth over relations with Jerusalem so as to better coordinate a response to Iranian nuclear activities and to the spillover from the Syrian civil war and other contingencies that may arise. Second, it could be used to down the road support a push for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process as J Street, most non-Orthodox American Jews, and the Israeli Left (Meretz, Hadash, part of Labor) wants. But then Obama will face the same obstacles that he faced in his first term--even worse. The Palestinians are still divided between Fatah and Hamas. The Likud still has a veto over the other parties in the coalition, but this time a powerful Jewish Home party is in the coalition along with a Yesh Atid that is largely agnostic on the peace issue and the Likud is farther to the Right than it was in Netanyahu's second government.
Friday, March 15, 2013
When President Barack Obama flies to Israel next week for his first visit as president to the Jewish state, what will be on the agenda for discussions between him and Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu? The answer to that may well stem from the purpose of the trip. I contend that the trip is largely for domestic political reasons. After Obama made his famous Cairo speech in May 2009 many in Israel who supported a two-state solution urged him to come to Israel and speak directly to the Israelis. Many American Jews also urged the same. But during Obama's first term the timing never seemed right. First, he got into a spat with Netanyahu over the housing freeze and Bibi's refusal to renew it. Then the Arab Spring broke out in the winter of 2010. And by this time Obama had probably decided that he wasn't seriously going to press for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his first term and so he simply promised that he would do it if reelected. This was in the way of throwing a bone to liberal Jews in the Democratic Party who supported J Street and wanted Obama to press for a two-state solution. Meanwhile Obama tackled his real priorities of passing health care reform and financial regulation reform, ending the war in Iraq, and dealing with the escalating war in Afghanistan.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Today the news in Israel is that after 49 days of bargaining, the white smoke has gone up and a new coalition government has emerged. It consists of four parties: Likud Beitenu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19), Jewish Home (14), and HaTnua (The Movement) (6). This gives it a ten seat majority so that it should be able to stand normal attrition levels for its lifetime if it can keep the three main parties in. Prime Minister Netanyahu managed to keep both the defense ministry and the foreign ministry for the Likud Beitenu.
Here is a link to a list of the ministers in the new government.
Here is a link to a list of the ministers in the new government.
Besides the day-to-day running of the country, the new coalition seems to have two main goals: integration of the ultra-Orthodox haredim into Israeli society and electoral reform. The first is to be accomplished by removing the exemptions from national or military service for all but 1800 ultra-Orthodox males and by requiring all schools, including the ultra-Orthodox schools, to have a core curriculum of English, science, and math so as to make the ultra-Orthodox employable in the secular world and hence not dependent on the religious parties for financial support. Here is a view of the new coalition by veteran English-speaking Israeli journalist David Horovitz.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Veteran unionist political commentator Alex Kane, who is affiliated with the Ulster Unionists and writes a regular column for The Newsletter, seems to be tentatively predisposed towards the new Basil McCrea/John McCallister pro-Union party. In his latest column he raises some of the same issues that I raised in a previous post a week ago, but in a friendly manner. This was very different from the way he attacked Alliance in a previous column mocking its new motto of Alliance for Everyone. So he seems to be trying to run interference for the new party by making it plain that its main competitor, Alliance, is a party of the past that has failed. From the way he starts out the attack it is clear that he is attacking Alliance for not being clearly a unionist party. Maybe he thinks it should call itself the Alliance Unionist Party?
The main question is for whom Kane was serving as an attack dog--for the new party or for his Ulster Unionists? That will only become clear over time as the party makes a formal launch and either operates in accordance with what Kane demands or goes on to disappoint him. But if he is going to mock Alliance's new campaign, maybe he should take another look at the name of his own party. The Ulster Unionists don't even have branches in three counties of Ulster--Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan--and are steadily losing members and support in the six counties that they do have branches in. Alliance for the first time in thirty-two years now has a member of parliament at Westminster while the UUP lacks one. And Alliance's leader is not the object of ridicule by the province's press.
On Saturday evening President Shimon Peres gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a two-week extension, after his initial month-long period for coalition formation had elapsed, in which to form a government. If Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Beitenu joint list of Likud and Israel Beitenu, is unable to form a government in this time Peres will either offer a chance to someone else or schedule new elections. The problem is that the number two and number three parties in size, Yesh Atid ("There is a future") and HaBeit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), have banded together and refused to enter any coalition that contains ultra-Orthodox or Haredi parties. This is because Yesh Atid ran on the platform of eliminating the religious exemption from national military service for Yeshiva (Jewish religious seminar) students, who also rely on financial aid extracted from the religious parties in coalition negotiations for their livelihood. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett is also fine with eliminating this exemption as religious Zionists do serve in the Israeli army. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has emphasized the "equal burden" issue over other election issues.